While David Cameron has urged British Muslims to assert their British identity, the evidence is that they already do, explains Saffron Karlsen.
There is a widely held perception in society that Muslim people living in Britain do not feel British. Comments by David Cameron and others, for example, describe a need to address the lack of integration and sense of Britishness among Muslims . As well as addressing more general concerns, this is seen as a solution to the apparent terrorist threat: both to avoid young people becoming radicalised and to ensure that those who have been radicalised are not protected by their supposedly geographically – and socially – segregated communities.
However, this attitude has developed without any empirical evidence. I have carried out some empirical work into these issues, using quantitative data from the nationally representative Home Office Citizenship Survey. This indicates that in fact 90% of Muslims – and also Hindus, Sikhs and ethnic minority Christians – in Britain report a strong sense of personal belonging to Britain. Indeed, Muslims across a variety of ethnicities were more likely to report feeling British than were Caribbean Christians. These findings directly contradict the perceptions regarding the desires of British Muslims for segregated communities.
The strength of this sense of Britishness was associated with age, gender, place of birth and, importantly, risk of racist victimisation. Those who perceived themselves at risk of victimisation were less likely to personally feel part of Britain, or of strongly belonging to Britain. Discussions of the ‘Muslim problem’ tend to ignore the role that the attitudes and actions of wider society may play in its creation.
Yet while a sense of belonging to Britain, like other identities, will be generated from an individual’s sense of having a legitimate claim to British identities, this sense of legitimacy is affected by the responses of others in wider society to this. Those who are consistently told that they are ‘not British’ are less likely to feel that they are.
Negative attitudes towards Muslims are commonly presented by government ministers, the media and others. Examples of this have been reported in the Daily Telegraph, New Stateman and the Guardian. This attitude has been accompanied by verbal abuse, physical violence and other forms of social and economic exclusion to which Muslims in Britain are increasingly and disproportionately exposed . This will directly affect their sense of acceptance and in turn their sense of belonging within British society.
Indeed, the weaker sense of Britishness among women in this study may be in direct response to the particular ways in which Muslim women are targeted more generally as a symbol of the apparent dysfunction inherent in Islam and also by the particular role ascribed to them in government anti-radicalisation agendas. Questioning the loyalty of already-loyal citizens runs a direct risk of generating/exacerbating the very problem these commentators seek to avoid/reduce.
There are frequent discussions within the government and media about the frustration which currently exists among young Muslims, and the ways that this may encourage them to become criminalised and radicalised. It is argued that this frustration stems from a confusion caused by the apparent incompatibility inherent in the British and Muslim cultures which they inhabit.
Interestingly, respondents in my research did not perceive a similar incongruity: more than three-quarters of British Muslims in the study did not perceive an incompatibility between fully belonging to Britain and maintaining a separate cultural/religious identity.
Younger people in this sample were significantly less likely to feel British. Complementary research suggests that much of this frustration stems from a sense among many young British Muslims that their rights as British citizens to fair treatment and freedom of expression are not being respected. This frustration is not about being Muslim, then – it is about a lack of accommodation of their Britishness.
This research was the subject of discussion on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed programme on 8 July. A download of this interview is available here.